Four years after the passage of an anti-bilingual education initiative, a new state test shows promising results in some districts that have shifted to English immersion programs.

While it’s still unclear whether the results will hold up through the middle and high school years, initial scores were relatively good in local districts where bilingual education has been dropped. The Fillmore Unified School District, for example, posted scores that were close to the averages of the affluent Conejo, Simi Valley, Pleasant Valley and Ojai districts.

Phyllys Lloyd, principal of San Cayetano School in Fillmore, said many teachers feared that children would falter when the district switched from bilingual instruction to an English immersion program. But that didn’t happen, she said. “We’re finding it does work,” Lloyd said. “E They’re proving the adults wrong.”

The state Department of Education reported Tuesday on the results from the California English Language Development Test for 1.5 million limited-English students in California — one-fourth of the enrollment in the state’s public schools. About 30,000 students were tested in Ventura County, about one-fifth of the school population.

State officials reported the results for kindergarten through 12th grade, but educators say some of the most telling scores can be found in the third grade. That’s the year when students whose first language is not English begin moving to regular classrooms. That grade also reflects students who have been educated since kindergarten under Proposition 227. The initiative, passed in 1998, requires students to be taught overwhelmingly in English unless parents ask for an exemption.

Overall, Ventura County third-graders had lower scores than the state as a whole — local students averaged 458 compared with the state average of 475.

That may be partly a reflection of the fact that a higher proportion are enrolled in bilingual education, an approach that focuses less on learning English and more on making sure students learn subjects in their native language while they become fluent in English. Educators say bilingual students perform as well as or better than native English speakers by the end of sixth grade and that they benefit in the long run by learning academic subjects in their first language.

Since the passage of Proposition 227, local school districts have reduced the percentage of students who are learning in their primary language, usually Spanish. Countywide, the percentage dropped from 53 percent to 31 percent last year. Statewide, only 11 percent received instruction in their primary language last year, down by almost two-thirds from 1997.

Still, several districts in Ventura County teach one-third to more than half their students with their first language, usually Spanish, while they become fluent in English. In the Hueneme School District, half the students were taught in bilingual classes last year, down from 95 percent before Proposition 227. Even in school districts that have staunchly defended bilingual education as effective, the rate is falling: It declined from 78 percent to 45 percent in the Oxnard School District, and in Moorpark, it’s 37 percent, down from 54 percent.

“Since 227, a lot of kids are going into English language earlier,” said Jackie Pinson, a third-grade teacher at Peach Hill School in Moorpark. “Time will tell how successful they are. We’ve had some who’ve been successful, but we’ve had some sad stories.”

Four districts had higher percentages of third-graders proficient in English than their counterparts in the county or state — Conejo Valley, Simi Valley, Pleasant Valley and Ojai. All those districts focus on English immersion, rather than bilingual education.

Students in those districts may be less transient, so they have had more time to learn English in a stable setting. Also, they may come from families where both parents are well-educated and earning high incomes.

“Many of our students might be here with parents who speak Chinese, who are scientists at Amgen with a Ph.D.,” said Richard Simpson, assistant superintendent for Conejo Valley schools.

The results from the exam add another piece to the puzzle of how to improve achievement for one of the fastest-growing and lowest-scoring groups of students in California. Their scores traditionally lag several grade levels behind students whose first language is English, and they are at high risk for failing a state exit exam to be required for high school graduates beginning in 2004.

County Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis said the English-language test is historic.

“We now have a common measure across the state of how much English language students are learning,” Weis said.

“Now we’ll have data that show which programs work. We can base our decisions on data, not on emotions.”

The English test is being introduced at a time when the state has few long-term ways to gauge the success of these students over the five to seven years it takes to learn the language. Some educators believe tracking those students may be tougher now that the state Board of Education has dropped the national achievement test used since Proposition 227 passed in favor of a new test. Statisticians say it’s still possible to trace long-term progress with a newly adopted test but that it will be a technical challenge.

Researchers say making a difference with these students isn’t just a matter of which method schools use. A study conducted by the Los Angeles Unified School District found that students had the most success when they were taught by credentialed, experienced teachers who made sure students understood the material.

“The things that made the difference were the teacher’s ability to make sure the child understood,” said Kathy Hayes, project director for the study. “It wasn’t good enough to speak to the child in Spanish.”

Successful teachers used methods such as carefully questioning students and presenting material in a variety of ways,including songs and drama.

Hayes said English learners have also done well with a reading program known as Open Court, which heavily emphasizes phonics. In Fillmore, Lloyd said, teachers helped English learners make strong gains by breaking material down into manageable chunks, assigning students to work on computerized reading programs and pairing them with English-speaking buddies.

Some school districts designed new English immersion programs to meet the demands of Proposition 227.

Kathleen Wilson; and Jean Cowden Moore; [email protected]; [email protected]

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